A story that has been handed down through the generations *wink*
“Just one story, please?”
Belinda was a soft touch and her kids knew it. She smiled ruefully, settled in the centre of the double bed shared by the twins and tucked one under each arm.
“So, what shall the story be about?”
“Monsters!” yelled Amy.
“A painter.” Laura smiled.
Belinda snuggled deeper under the blankets and nodded thoughtfully.
“Do you know, I have just the thing. My mother told me this story when I was about your age, and her mother told her. It’s been in the family for many years, and do you know the best thing about it?” She paused and the children shook their heads, staring with wide eyes, “It’s all true!”
‘A long time ago, when there were still kings who rode to war on valiant chargers, queens who were wooed by wandering minstrels, and princesses being awoken with magical kisses, there lived a handsome knight. His name was Alexander, and he was the king’s favourite. Every bard in the land, every minstrel, sang songs and told tales of Sir Alexander DeLacey, the strongest, bravest, smartest knight ever to have served a king.
Now, one day, whilst travelling the lands on quests for the king, Alexander happened to stay overnight at the home of a lowly baron whose family had long since fallen out of favour with the king over some trifling remark, forgotten by all. The baron had a daughter who was fair and slender, graceful and clever, and Alexander fell in love with her instantly. Being a very chivalrous knight, he went to the baron and asked for the girl’s hand which was readily given as the father saw an easy way to get back into the king’s good books.
Alexander had a lot more business to fulfill and could not marry the girl on the spot as it was not the thing to take a bride on perilous quests in those times. Alexander wished to have the girl’s image with him at all times so he searched the village until he found a competent painter. The artist was asked to paint a perfect miniature of the girl and given twenty-four hours to complete it. The poor artist, terrified of losing the favour of the king’s favourite, painted image after image but none were quite perfect. He was ready to despair when there came a knock at the door.
Answering it, the artist found a slim parcel on his step. It bore only his name, and he had no idea who had left it, though he looked up and down the silent street for any sign of the messenger. Puzzled, he returned inside and picked up a knife to cut the string. Tired, his hand slipped and he pierced his thumb along with the string. As the plain brown paper fell open he sucked his thumb and stared at the bare black box that was revealed. Curious now, and glad to be distracted from his impossible commission, he flicked open the box lid and find himself gazing open the most beautiful brush he had ever seen. It was as black as midnight with the purest of white bristles, and the instant he held it between his fingers it felt like it had been there all his life.
“Surely, with such a perfect brush I shall paint a superior image?” he told the canvas before him and began to paint. He became so enthralled in the stunning picture he was creating that he did not notice the tiny trickle of blood running down the brush and filtering through the bristles. Finally, exhausted and with fingers painfully cramped, he stepped back and admired the perfect image of the girl which Alexander could not fail to love. The painter collapsed into his chair and slept instantly, never hearing the faint laughter which echoed around the still room.
Alexander was indeed delighted with the painting and paid the artist twice what he had promised. Wherever he went, the knight showed off the image of his beautiful fiancée and people began to flock to the door of the painter, all wanting one of those perfect images, of a daughter, a son, a mother, a husband. As the painter grew rich from his commissions, though he never again painted anything so flawless, time passed and Alexander returned to marry his beautiful lady. Upon a chance encounter in the street, he was blocked by a woman huddled under a shawl, hunched of back and stumbling of step. Anxious to see his beloved, Alexander gently moved the woman from his path with an apology, but her words stayed him.
“Sir Knight, do you not know me?”
The woman pushed back her shawl and Alexander was struck dumb; for here was his betrothed, the one whose image he had kept beside his heart through all the long months, but she was wizened, wasted to a thread, bent of back and lame.
“What ails you, woman?”
She could only shake her head and weep, for she had no answers to give. Alexander was true to his word, marrying the girl as he had promised, but theirs was a sad union, for Alexander could not bear to see her, remembering what she had been, constantly reminded by the painted image. He was never unkind, and she lacked for nothing; nothing but his love. As time passed, Alexander’s sadness infected all corners of his life. He was no longer the brightest, bravest favourite of the king. He was surpassed, sent ever further afield on pointless quests, ever more dangerous battles, until he was finally slain by a stray arrow, an ignoble death for one who had touched the stars.
As knights kept vigil about his casket, his wife, heavily veiled and walking with a cane though yet a young maid of less than twenty summers, wept silently in her chambers for she had loved him with all her heart. Whilst preparing for sleep she noticed a slip of parchment slide under her door. Wincing as she bent to pick it up, she heard fleet steps receding, but she took too long to open the latches and peer put. The passage was empty. She moved to the single candle, unrolled the scroll and read slowly, for her sight was fading as fast as her health.
‘Come to the kitchen gate. I have something for you.’
Haltingly, the girl made her painful way through the castle, down the servant’s stairs and out of the kitchen, pausing some way from the gate, nervous on seeing a shadow detach from the gate post and drift closer.
“Fear not, girl. You served your purpose and I bear you no ill will. More, I wish to release you from the thrall you are under. Retrieve your portrait from the breast of your husband and take it to the painter in your home village. Ask him to paint you anew, as you are now, but be sure he paints you only with the black brush he used back then. Burn both images under the full moon and you will be who you once were.”
“Why should I do this? My husband is dead. My life is done.”
“Learn from me this night, child” The shadow threw back its deep hood revealing a beautiful woman with hair the colour of glowing embers and eyes as blue as a summer sky, but the secrets she spilled were as black as her heart, “I once loved your husband, and he I, but he left me. I was not good enough to grace his arm at court for I was but a milkmaid. Not one word did I hear from or of him, but that which came from bards and minstrels singing his praises, but I knew him for what he was, a man only willing to share his love with one of status, even you, the daughter of a forgotten baron, even you eclipsed me.
I had studied long and hard for the moment he fell, and it was I who gifted the painter his brush with which to paint you. Every bristle was soaked in my hatred. He painted you, but my magic drew your vitality, passed it to me. I met him, a final time, when he was desperate for love. I came to him the night before his final battle and he did not know me, but we had that night, and he professed his love for me in his drunken leching. Again he was gone when light came, but I followed him to that battle field and it was I who loosed that arrow.
My revenge is done, and you are free. Think again before you fall for a knight in shining armour, girl; they are never what they seem.”
With that she drew up her hood and vanished into the night. The girl, no longer able to look upon the face of the man she had loved and trusted, hoped to win back over time, whispered to a knight who, sorry for the poor widow, brought her the painting from the casket. She fled into the night, racing for home, for the painter. She followed the instructions, and was indeed returned to her normal self, as radiant a beauty as the world had ever seen. The painter eventually asked for her hand and she gave it willingly, for she had learned her lesson well, but one night, when her husband lay sleeping, she gathered up the paint brush, placed it in its box , removed a brick from inside the chimney and hid it there for she wished never to be reminded of the past.’
There was an audible sigh as the children relaxed, Laura almost asleep, already drifting into her fantasies and dreams, but Amy bounced up and started jumping on the bed.
“It’s not true is it? It’s just a silly fairy story!”
For answer, Belinda rose, crossed the room to the chimney, withdrew a loose brick and pulled out a plain black box, opened it, and displayed the elegant paintbrush inside. Observing the wide-eyed stares of both girls, Belinda smiled:
“I told you the story had been in the family a long time.”